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May 29, 2011 3:01 pm

Seriously, Aren’t Atheists Embarrassed by P.Z. Myers?

avatar by Moshe Averick

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Dr. P.Z. Myers (photo by Flickr)One of my mentors, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, (of blessed memory), made the following, rather sobering, observation about human nature: “Nobody ever allowed something as trivial as facts and logic to interfere with their agenda. If the facts and logic don’t fit, then the facts and logic will just have to fend for themselves.”  Nowhere do we find more glaring examples of the human predilection for intellectual corruption than when we examine the writings and lectures of an ideologue who is driven, not by a burning desire for truth, but by a burning desire to further his or her own agenda.

Having said that, we are now ready to introduce one of the more zealous and outspoken (read: tiresome and obnoxious) advocates of the Darwinian/atheist worldview, P.Z. Myers. Dr. Myers is an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota-Morris, a satellite of the main state university, or as David Klinghoffer put it, “well known as the Harvard of Morris, Minnesota.” In a lecture at the Atheist International Alliance in 2009 (Burbank, Ca.) entitled Design vs. Chance, Myers administered, what he considered to be, a thorough thrashing of Intelligent Design theory. What actually transpired was a startlingly clear demonstration of the aforementioned principle set forth by Rabbi Weinberg; namely, that there is no simple fact or logical construct that will not be trampled into dust when it gets in the way of an agenda. I leave it to the readers to decide for themselves which of those options more closely mirrors reality.

Myers began by presenting a brisk summary of Intelligent Design theory:

“The core of the argument is this: (A) Complexity can only be created by a designer, (B) Biology is really complex, (C) Biology was created by design.”

He then poses the following to his audience,

“What about the whole complexity issue? We biologists will freely admit that things are really complicated inside the cell. So how do we explain it? Don’t we have to resort to a Creator? And we say, of course not. There’s lots of things that are very complicated [and aren’t the result of an intelligent creator]. I’ll show you an example here.”

At this point in his PowerPoint presentation there is a photograph showing a rather large pile of driftwood along what is obviously a coastline. Myers informs us that it is Rialto Beach in upper Washington State. He continues…

“And this is a very common thing along beaches…driftwood. You find these walls of driftwood between you and getting down to the beach, real walls, very complicated walls. It has been constructed, who did it? We know the answer, natural processes did it. We don’t need a designer to build this kind of wall. This is complex, you simply can’t deny it. If I turn the projector off would you be able to draw it? No.”

To be honest, when I saw this lecture for the first time, I thought Myers was joking. A pile of driftwood as being analogous to the “complexity” of a living cell?! Myers is arguing that since a “complex” and “complicated” pile of driftwood can accumulate through an undirected natural process, so can a living cell. I guess if by “complexity” you mean a chaotic collection of junk, then I would have to agree; a large pile of driftwood is certainly “complex.” In any case, no self-respecting ID theorist would ever use the term “complexity.” The terms that are always used are “functional complexity” or “specified complexity.” In other words, complexity that achieves some pre-determined goal, complexity that clearly functions towards a specific purpose. The argument is that “functional complexity” and “specified complexity” clearly are the result of intelligent intervention. A pile of driftwood is immediately recognizable for exactly what it is; a random, disorganized, purposeless collection of….well, driftwood! To describe this argument as flawed logic would be misleading; we first would have to dignify it by labeling it as some form of logic in the first place. It is not flawed logic, it is simply ridiculous.

It may be hard to believe, but it gets worse. A photograph of an expertly-constructed brick wall surrounding a garden flashes on the screen. Dr. Myers continues:

“On the other hand we are familiar with this kind of wall. So this is also a wall, it’s one that we can recognize that has a specific purpose, that was built by human agents, and I’d have to say that of these two walls, which one is simpler? The human built one…When we look at natural walls [i.e driftwood] what we discover is natural things are built by chance and necessity, they are functionally unspecified, there’s nothing that says that a pile of driftwood is a wall…and they tend to be complex. In this sense, complex often means sloppy, but it’s still complex. Artificial walls [i.e. the brick wall] are built with intent, they are functionally very specific…and relatively simple.

Let’s carefully follow this “logic” as it leads us straight into a train wreck:

  • Piles of driftwood are “functionally unspecified,”  “sloppy,” are assembled randomly by natural processes, and are considered to be “complex.”
  • Brick walls are “functionally very specific,” have a “specific purpose,” are assembled by intelligent agents, and are considered to be “simple.”
  • Ergo, a living cell which is “complex” is comparable to a pile of “complex” driftwood and has nothing in common with the “simple” and “functionally very specific” brick wall that obviously is the product of intelligent design.

Does Myers actually expect us to believe that the simplest living organism that exists, a bacterium – which is, in the words of Australian microbiologist Michael Denton, “a veritable micro-miniaturized factory containing thousands of elegantly designed pieces of intricate molecular machinery, made up of all together one hundred thousand million atoms, far more complicated than any machinery built by man and without parallel in the non-living world…an object resembling an immense automated factory…carrying out almost as many unique functions as all the manufacturing activities of man on earth,”  – is assembled like a pile of driftwood on a beach? Isn’t it glaringly obvious that it resembles, not the “functionally unspecified” and chaotic collection of driftwood, but the “functionally very specific,” “built with a purpose,” and “built with intent,” brick wall?! Has he gone mad? Has this man completely abandoned any semblance of rationality? How is it possible that his audience continues to sit through this nonsense, bobbing their heads up and down in approval like a pack of toy dogs on the back window of a car?

I didn’t think it was possible to present a more convoluted, agenda-driven response than the one with which I was presented by Dr. Jerry Coyne, an atheistic biologist at the University Chicago. What was Dr. Coyne’s smug response to the simple fact that science has no clue how something as functionally complex as a bacterium could have emerged from non-life?

“We may never understand how life originated on Earth, because the traces of early life have vanished. We know it happened at least once, but not how. I’m pretty confident that within, say, 50 years[!] we’ll be able to create life in a laboratory under the conditions of primitive Earth, but that, too, won’t tell us exactly how it did happen – only that it could.”

No wonder Dr. Coyne turned down an invitation to a moderated discussion with me on the subject of Origin of Life; even if he agreed today, he would need 50 more years to prepare his case! Be that as it may, P.Z. Myers has clearly surpassed even Jerry Coyne. But the “jewel in the crown” of P.Z. Myers’ level of integrity and intellectual potency in this whole discussion is best illustrated by what he himself authored on his blog-site “Pharyngula,” on March 8, 2011:

“If we’re going to start comparing lacunae, let’s start with thermodynamics. We’ve got detailed, complete mathematical descriptions of a fundamental mechanism that drives all of biology; the Torah’s got nothin’…We win. Argument over. F**k off, rabbi.” (Just for the record, Dr. Myer’s wrote the word as it is properly spelled, I added the asterisks)

I have to admit that I would find the prospect of a debate with Dr. Myers to be quite daunting. After all, between his still-lifes of driftwood and his rich vocabulary of four letter words, it’s clear that this man is packing a devastating level of intellectual firepower. But all sarcasm aside, I have a heartfelt question for all you skeptics out there and I want you to answer seriously: Doesn’t P.Z. Myers make you embarrassed to be an atheist?

Rabbi Moshe Averick is an ordained orthodox rabbi and educator for over 30 years.  He is the author of Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist, and frequently lectures on spirituality, belief in God, and atheism. He can be reached via his website: www.RabbiMaverick.com

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